Note: This is a longer post, but I really urge you to carve out 15 minutes and take it all in.
Let’s face facts – becoming successful in any trade is the result of hard work…LOTS and lots of hard work. Whether you have professional aspirations in business, medicine, law or music, the path that leads to success can be a bumpy and at times, seemingly impossible one to travel without some help. Of course, if you’re interested in a career in music, that’s why fame Wizard® exists. The folks over at music think tank posted a great article about this a while back – you should read this first.
The article accurately points out that education is critical and that there are simply no shortcuts to success in the music business. Occasionally we all hear stories about the overnight sensation or star that seemed to blow up out of nowhere. The reality is that most, if not all, of these examples are written up in the trades and covered in all media platforms for the sake of grabbing attention and drumming up interest. If we were to dig a bit deeper in to each of these stories however, we would find that a lot more time and energy were required to get the “overnight success” that was achieved. In the rare case where someone does come from virtual obscurity to a moment in the spotlight, those are the exceptions that prove the rule and rarely do they create sustainable businesses from their 15 minutes of fame.
So what’s this all about? I listen to a podcast produced by comedian Jay Mohr from time to time and he recently did an interview with Jay Leno. Most people recognize Jay Leno as the host of The Tonight Show and as an avid car collector. I had never heard, nor really cared to pay attention to what his rise to stardom and wealth really looked like. In fact, I’m a lifetime member of Team Coco. However, as the two of these comedians were talking about how Jay came to be the successful entertainer he is today, I couldn’t help but think of how much of what he was saying is applicable to aspiring musicians.
Here are just a few of the nuggets I picked out:
“The stage is not a normal place to be, but if you’re on it everyday, it becomes normal.” If the stage feels uncomfortable at this point in your career – don’t worry, it should get easier. Most importantly, if you aren’t performing live a TON, you should be. Jay still does stand-up, not The Tonight Show, but additional stand-up gigs 200+ nights every year. His thinking is that he got in to comedy to do stand-up and everything else is just gravy. Interestingly enough, he said later on in the podcast that he still lives on the money he makes from stand-up and everything else…repeat, EVERYTHING ELSE is just piling up for toys, retirement, investment, etc.
“The audience gives me another 40%…they’re looking at me and I’m thinking faster…” David Paich said something really similar in an interview I did with him about your album being the blueprint and the live show being where you get all the window dressings. Things become dynamic and the live performance is an exchange of emotion and yields more interesting results that you can come up with when you’re sitting in front of a board or your instrument all by yourself.
Who are you measuring yourself against? Jay talked about begging to follow Richard Pryor (arguably the best to ever do it) at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles when Richard was prepping to do an album. He then learned that his material that was marginal – meaning the jokes only got a few laughs or none at all – needed to get cut out, but what made people laugh, even after Pryor’s set must be good and then it stayed in the act. He got better because he didn’t bullshit himself into thinking he was funnier than he was. How often are you challenging yourself with/against other talented players or bands? It’s easy to get high on your own supply but when you test your material in the context of others that are great – then you really get a sense of what’s working.
Are you interested or are you committed? Jay had a friend when he lived back East that had decided to buy himself a new Camaro. Shortly after doing so, he couldn’t go to an acting audition because he had to “work” so he could make payments on his new car. Jay knew right then and there that he didn’t want to be in that position. He left his apartment, left the doors open, told the neighbors to take what they wanted, jumped a plane to LA and got dropped off on the Sunset Strip in LA because he knew that was where the Comedy Store was. He slept in alleys behind comedy clubs in NYC (Hell’s Kitchen) and the back steps of The Comedy Store in LA. He walked around Hollywood and Vine, got arrested for vagrancy and never took a “real job.”
“I just lived on what I made as a comedian, I was determined not to get a job, because then if I got a job I would want nice things and then I would want a nice place to live and then I realized that being a comedian would be secondary to that.”
Jay dropped a quote from Bob Knight, the infamous college basketball coach, “Everybody has the will to win, send me kids with the will to prepare to win.”
One of the most interesting points that Jay made was when he was talking about waiting in line at the Improv. In those days, if you wanted to get on stage you would literally stand behind the club for hours and hope to get a chance to do 3 minutes of your material. Jay would see people step out of line after a couple of hours saying, “this sucks,” and then he’d move forward and say, “you know what, this is good, if I can just out-wait the other guys, I’ll be good.” So that’s what he did, out-wait people in order to get his shot. Too many aspiring Artists think they’re entitled to a shot, Jay knew early on that he had to work for it and pay the price.
“If you can physically make it to the stage for 7 years, you will be successful. Most comics can not, on year 4 or 5 they’re sick of their act, they hate their material…there is something that keeps them in year 5 or 6…they can’t physically get to the stage…if you can physically do it for 7 years, you WILL be successful” This little nugget was one of my favorites as it is SO COMPLETELY TRUE when it comes to musicians. I always think of the Beatles playing in Hamburg, Germany for those few years; honing their skills, dialing-in their sound and getting not only comfortable, but also confident on stage. It’s not easy to get your ass in front of people all the time consistently – but it’s absolutely critical.
I assume I’m the dumbest person in the room, but if I just work harder…” Then Jay Mohr replied, “it seems like the narrative of your professional career is you were just willing to work, period.”
“I was willing to work for cheap or for free…I never took a job for the money. What I used to do in Boston is I would go into a bar and say I’m a comedian, they would say ‘get out of here’ and I had a $50 bill that I carried, and I would say ‘here’s $50’ – I’ll go over there and tell jokes, if I embrass your club and people leave, you keep the 50, if I get some laughs and people like it, give me my 50 back – and everybody went for that.” I hear people belly-ache about “pay-to-play” gigs or gigs that “aren’t worth it.” Grow up. Until you’ve got a draw and you can prove that your act is worth booking, suck it up and do what needs to be done to get on stage!
Leno tells a story about getting knocked out with a ketchup bottle while on stage and Muddy Waters (who he opened for) telling him, “that’s show business!” Wow. He also opened for Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, Buddy Rich, Stan Getz, Mose Allison, Ahmad Jamal, Stanley Clarke, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells – respect…no really, MUCH respect to Leno if you’ve got half-a-brain.
The thing that really impressed me most throughout the whole interview was how matter of fact Jay was about all of his experiences and what he did to get where he is today. I’ve noticed many times in my professional life that the highly successful folks who I’ve had the opportunity to speak with in person or hear in interviews like this one always tend to have a real sense of calm and cool about who they are and where they came from. I’m beginning to understand that this natural ease comes from the fact that they’ve seen and done some crazy stuff, they’ve worked their ass off to get to this point and can sit back confidently knowing that they’ve earned every bit of the success they enjoy today.
In closing, I’ll leave you with a solid mantra from Rob Daily of Daily Unsigned that one of our Artists, Alice Sweet Alice shared:
I will always remember that my ego is not my amigo.
I will always remember that the “Song” is most important in my career.
I will always remember to work harder than anyone else on Social Media.I will always remember to say “Thank you” to everyone I come in contact with.
I will always remember to be respectful to everyone I come in contact with.
I will always remember to pay my “Team” Manager, Agent, PR Person and Attorney.
I will always remember to not “hate” or cause “drama” with others in my career path.
I will always remember to send “Thank you” cards to the Bookers and Promoters that let me play at their venues.
I will always remember to put on an amazing “live show” for my fans.
I will always remember to make each “live show” better than the previous one.
I will always remember to not mention the name of each song that I play on stage.
I will always remember that my career is a “business” and will treat it as such.
I will always remember to keep myself educated with what is going on in the music industry.
I will always remember to keep working hard on ways to make money so I can keep funding my career.
I will always remember to make hand flyers to promote myself.
Copyright 2012 – Rob Daily, Daily Unsigned
Keep working hard y’all – that’s what it takes to achieve your dreams!